The love-poems Sappho sang to other women on the island of Lesbos two and a half thousand years ago have become world-famous; although they only survive in fragments, they have never ceased to fascinate composers.
Georg Friedrich Haas begins his composition (named after a young girl who was Sappho’s pupil) with consonant sounds, as the voice emerges almost imperceptibly from the swelling major third in several string octaves. In slow motion, as it were, the singer recites the Greek words mete moi meli, mete melissa [“no honey for me, no bees”] on a single pitch – a lover’s lament, sung while the major third first turns gradually into a minor third, then a tritone and finally a seventh.
Then the German words untergegangen ist der Mond [“the moon is sunken”] follow, first as if spoken and then sung in cantabile melisma. The score calls for three types of singing: rough, in the lowest register, almost spoken, then cantabile, espressivo and melodious and, thirdly, as glissando, whereby the three types of singing must be clearly differentiated: “The effect should be like that of changing instruments, or imitating a vocal trio.”
Haas extends the sonic space by using string glissandi and by retuning individual pitches by 1/6 up or down. The music reflects the words, such as in the passage about icy frost and dead wings; the music abandons any equal temperament and moves into dynamic extremes, requiring very specific overtones and frequency clashes among the octaves. The end of love [“nevermore come I to you again”] also leads musically to an “absolute standstill;” here, in the middle of the piece, time goes out of joint, bar-lines and metre are abandoned – the “broken tongue” is the correlative of the breakdown of the discourse into disjointed words. Almost like [Stefan] George in his Litanei, the poetess speaks of the tormenting inner fire which instills thoughts of death.
But then comes “Und dennoch, und dennoch” [“And yet, and yet”] – without instrumental accompaniment – the words which begin the second part, devoted to reawakening Eros and the search for Atthis, at once tormenting and exhilarating. The polarity of winds and strings parallels the juxtaposition of the first and second persons in the discourse; each instrumental group plays in its own tempo, although settling on a common, steady pulse when the lovers find each other. A general hiatus ensues, after which follows a simple, quiet epilogue as they savour their closeness, the lyrical poetess arrived at her goal – on her lover’s tender breast.
Translation Copyright © 2012 by Grant Chorley
From the Berlin Philharmonic programme booklet 2009/2010
Violinists Alexandra Wood and Joan Atherton join with violist Paul Silverthorne and cellist Sally Pendlebury to articulate the rich inner life of a score that whets the appetite for more. (George Hall, The Guardian, 24 April 2015)
Haas and Jones’s collaboration is a beautiful one, tender with humanity while chafing hard at the emotions. (Alexandra Coghlan, The Arts Desk, 24 April 2015)
His focus on using music as a means of depicting raw human emotion produces a sonorous, yet beautiful effect, making this experience a wholly poignant and evocative one. (Isabella Farrell, A Younger Theatre, 27 April 2015)